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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riding Off Into the (Florida) Sunset: America's First Cowboys

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The word cowboy immediately conjures up images of the arid, sunlit plains of the midwest, the dry heat of Texas and Arizona, big-brimmed hats and dusty mid-calf boots. But long before these Western heroes graced the horizon with their silhouettes, another brand of cowboy was mucking it up in the swamps. The original cowboy. The Florida cowboy.

Back in the early 1500s, nearly 350 years before cattle herding became commonplace in the plains, the Spanish attempted to cultivate the wilds of Florida’s bogs to no avail. Soon admitting failure, they traveled back to Spain, but left horses and heads of cattle behind to make room on their ships for the treasures they had acquired in North America. On return trips, however, the Spanish brought more cattle with them. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, in 1565 (with the "help" of native labor) the Spanish set up ranches—well before the Mayflower pilgrims were even born. By 1700 there were more than 30 ranches set up along the Florida Panhandle, which had become so successful at cattle-raising they had even begun exporting the animals to Cuba.

These cattle required local young men to tend them and keep them safe. Called vaqueros, these were not only the first cowboys in America, but are widely believed to be responsible for the first “cowboys and Indians” fights, when Native Americans attacked herds in revenge for trampling their lands.

In 1763, after the English won the Seven Year’s War, the British settlers of Florida took over ranching in the region, turning it into a thriving business model. These cowboys eventually fashioned a 12-foot-long threaded leather whip which cracked fiercely when used, earning them the name Crackers—and further separating them from the Western cowboys to come, who would use lassos. The ranchers used these whips to corral the Cracker cows, a distinct breed with long horns and large feet. Both Cracker horses and Cracker cows are relatively small, 700 and 600 pounds respectively. But this didn’t prevent the cows from becoming an important source of food for soldiers during the Civil War.

 

Cracker Cows, c. 1929 // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In fact, in 1861, small militia groups made up primarily of Crackers formed the “Cow Cavalry” which protected the ranches and plantations of Florida from Union soldier raids. Some say that Florida’s greatest contribution to the Civil War was the food its ranches provided Confederate troops, which the Cow Cavalry kept secure.

In the years after the war, the Crackers took over central Florida, allowing their herds, consisting of 5,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, to roam free along the marshy terrain. Their horses began to further adapt to the area, growing even smaller, with lighter heads and a more agile gait. The Cracker horses are now Florida’s official horse, and the species, which teetered on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, now numbers in the thousands in the Sunshine State.

Before highways tore through the state's dense shrubbery and wild trails, the Cracker horses let the Florida cowboys ride all day in 100-degree weather, their coats and skin more impervious to insect attacks than that of their main rival, the Quarter horses.

 

Cracker horse // Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0



“They’re very good working horses because they have so much endurance," says Florida rancher and cowboy Bobby Hall. "They’ll be going all day and a lot of the Quarter horses will give out by noon."

Yes, the Crackers are still herding on their ranches to this day, and Florida does a booming cattle business because of it. It is the third largest beef producer east of the Mississippi. Their association is a robust organization with support from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It oversees the registration of purebred Cracker horses, provides information on buying, selling and breeding Cracker horses, and assists in the preservation of this quiet wealth of Floridian history.

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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iStock
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science
There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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